5:30 PM New Year’s Eve. I’m standing in the courtyard at 800 K St NW, sipping a venti dark roast from Starbucks and nibbling on some pumpkin bread. I’d tried to find a seat at the Starbucks at 7th St across from the Chinatown gate, but it was too crowded. When I got into this little area of solitude, I relaxed, then realized there was another Starbucks right here. Sigh.
Why the solitude? Because The Passenger opened at 6, I was supposed to be there by 7 to help set up, and at 9 PM the doors would open at the old Hogo location for what I was there to do – bartend at Dan Searing’s pop-up Punch Club over there.
Let’s be honest about all this: I have never bartended before. Since starting this here site with Marshall, I’ve always proclaimed my side of the bar was the one where I was drinking, not serving. Sure, I’d done some parties, and made one (1!) drink behind the bar at Room 11 for some bartenders at a Compass Box event (and boy howdy did that terrify me, too) but this was all new to me.
Anyways, I knew I’d have lots of work to do, so away I went. I got there, I grabbed ingredients, I filled the wells with ice, I helped pour some stuff. I took a few minutes to visit some friends and have a drink or two over at an increasingly-insane Passenger, then it was back to work.
Occasionally people wandered back. “9 PM!” we’d tell them. We stacked champagne in the fridges. Alexis dusted the whole place and swept. We unloaded Dan’s car and put punch menus into laminate sheets.
Tom came by to ask how much longer. “Ten minutes!” “Make it five!” Wow. People actually talk like that! 200 people in line, I’m told. All punches are $9. Glass of champagne is $9. Can of Schlitz is $4, but those run out so quickly as to be basically a null factor.
Dan is mixing punch. Lukas is handling the credit card machine and money. The music is blasting. The initial thought is I start pouring, Alexis takes orders from the tables. The doors open and in pour the thirsty hordes.
WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING.
We’re immediately killed. I just start taking orders as fast as I can and trying to pour them. I mistake one woman for a friend of mine and say before I realize that a) she isn’t her and b) I don’t have time to embarrassed. Alexis takes some orders, realizes I’m swamped, and jumps in behind the bar to start pouring (THANK GOD).
My first complaint comes almost right away – “why aren’t our punches at the same level? Fill this one up more.” NO. Ain’t nobody got time or the desire to do that. They’re as close as even as you’re ever going to get.
The other complaint is pretty typical for those first three hours: “Can you take my order? I’ve been waiting soooo long!” I try my best to keep it fair and rotate through but it’s never going to be perfect, especially when it’s my first time doing this.
(And I will be completely honest: people I know got quicker service. I’d say sorry but I’m not, really.)
For the next 2.5 hours I have no idea what time it is or really what’s going on except right immediately in front of me. Cups and ice run low then Santos and Alexis save us. Punches run out, get remade or different ones made, and menus go further out of date. We explain over and over again: “No, we don’t have anything except punch and champagne. No, the Schlitz ran out. There are two other bars in this building.”
A woman almost throws her iPhone and charger at us demanding we charge it behind the bar. Lady, we don’t even know if we have outlets back here, much less where they are. She’s infuriated when we refuse.
There are no tabs. Everything is pass and go. I manage to only make one money mistake all night, when I forget to hand someone their change while making someone else’s drinks, but he got my attention and I took care of him.
Midnight draws near. We start handing out champagne bottles. No more orders, just champagne. One woman is desperate for punch despite free champagne. Later, she screams at us for not having Sprite.
To be honest, we didn’t have many problems. One large group got drunk, we cut them off, no worries. Another guy got really drunk, didn’t want water, left without a problem. Someone else was more persistent, but never got served.
I stopped outside for a breath of fresh air around 1 AM or so. The sidewalk is full of chain smokers, taxi and Uber fumes, people screaming, yelling, making out, puking. I go back inside to the steadily diminishing crowd.
Next thing you know it’s 4 AM. Lukas has cleared everyone out. We clean up a bunch of stuff, then head into the theater for a toast to the Passenger and all the fine folks in it.
My mom had asked me to drop her a line when I got home so she wouldn’t worry. I warned her it’d be when she was already up in the morning, feeding the horses and taking care of the dogs. Soon enough you start to see light out the ceiling window.
I look around a bit. This is it, after all.
Like all of us, there’s a lot of memories in those walls. Scofflaws Den started in 2007, but a lot of our time – and our five year anniversary party, for that matter – was spent at the Passenger. It was somewhere that I knew all my friends could get a drink they’d like. It was somewhere that I’d meet up – and heck, where I met, many of my friends. It’s where on special days you might find the special boards had drinks named after you or something you loved.
Hell it was a place where people would give away the stuff they liked to make, like Marshall’s bitters, and they’d have a shelf for them.
It’s where I had my first taste of the bartending bug and holy hell, it was exhilarating. I know not every night could be like that, and that there’s lots of work I didn’t have to do (like, say, garnishing past some scraped nutmeg) but I also knew right away that I’d want to do it more and more and again and again, kind of like the first time you get laid. “OHHHH! That’s what the big deal is!”
It’s 8:30 AM on New Year’s Day at 1021 7th St. NW. Everyone else is piling into cabs or Ubers. It’s a nice morning, so I start walking to the Metro station. On the way, I pick up the phone and call my mom. I knew she’d be glad to hear from me.
I should probably keep away from any metaphors involving virginity with her. Given my family’s sense of humor, I’d never hear the end of it, or I’d hear too much.